Review: Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope

 Safekeeping, by Jessamyn Hope (Fig Tree Books, 2014)
I’ve always thought great literature charts the history of missed connections—and the human struggle to repair lost opportunities or absent relations. From Odysseus’s wandering return to Ithaca, to Anna Karenina’s doomed love affair, to the social and familial alienation of Leopold Bloom, the poignancy of literary art often comes from the longings and lamentations over what-might-have-been.
Missed connections form the heart of Safekeeping, a beautiful novel by Jessamyn Hope that spans the centuries but centres largely on a kibbutz near Mt. Carmel in the mid 1990s. I’d picked up the book, of course, when I learned of its kibbutz focus, especially the setting of a community on the verge of privatization. But I fell under the spell of Hope’s storytelling, characterization and unexpected shifts in narrative focus, even as I enjoyed how she wove the history of the kibbutz movement and the state of Israel into her novel’s backstory.

The missed connections—and the emotional turmoil they cause—are plentiful in Safekeeping, and most gravitate around a mysterious brooch, made by a Jewish goldsmith in the 14th century, of great value and even greater personal significance. There are missed connections between a grandfather and grandson in New York City; a father and son in the same district; a kibbutz-founding mother and her privatization-minded son in Israel; two pairs of star-cross’d lovers—a Chernobyl-scarred immigrant and a Palestinian-Israeli, a thirty-year-old French Canadian who has grown up in a mental asylum and a teenage kibbutz musician disfigured in a terrorist attack; and the equally secretive affair between a Holocaust survivor and a kibbutz pioneer during the turbulent birth of a nation.
The brooch acts as an objective correlative to evoke this sense of missed connections even as it joins the disparate characters and historical timelines of the story, like E. Annie Proulx’s Accordion Crimes or the movie The Red Violin. But Hope never overplays the brooch’s symbolic significance, and many of the characters resist its allure in interesting ways while others let its raw worth corrupt their personalities.
The main narrative follows Adam, a young recovering alcoholic haunted by many mistakes, through his months as a volunteer on a kibbutz in the Galilee on a mission, to return the brooch to a once-intended-recipient, whose importance even he doesn’t fully understand. Some of the most powerful scenes, however, are short interruptions or epilogues to the story of Adam and his grandfather. In one, Hope vividly evokes the horrors and desperation of a Black Plague pogrom—and the act that sets the novel’s drama in motion.
History otherwise works in the background to the characters’ lives: the Holocaust, the founding of Israel, the Oslo Accords and bus bombings of the 1990s, the divided reaction to the Jewish State around the world, the rise and decline of the kibbutz movement as a society of equals. There’s a depth of research, but Hope never forces it upon her readers or her characters. Toward the book’s end, the vote about privatization on the novel’s kibbutz feels, in fact, anti-climactic. More important are the last actions of her cast of characters—and whether they can breach those missed connections that have left them alone, deeply damaged or both. Some do. Some don’t. We are often left to imagine how key figures manage the trajectory of their lives, rather than having it all spelled out for us by the book’s final pages.

And the conclusion is a masterful exercise in surprise and indirection—a novelistic risk that pays off—that left me thinking and rethinking about all the characters and their decisions that had populated my imagination for the past two weeks.
Come for the kibbutz content. Stay for the storytelling. Safekeeping is a book that you will want to pass along to friends and relations, like a small heirloom too beautiful to keep to yourself.

The final design…

And one more change. The journey from inspiration to publication for this book has been long and winding. I’d count it at six years of researching and writing — and 27 years of thinking about my experiences as a young, naive kibbutz volunteer.

The path to a final title, subtitle and cover has been equally circuitous, if a bit more accelerated. The marketing folks at ECW Press came back with one more recommended change — this time to the title… I was nervous when I heard the publisher wanted to switch the title again. (I’d changed it three times on my own.) But then I saw the new version, matched to the sunset image from the Hula Valley, and it all just felt right. And then we added “Future” into the sub-title and everything clicked.

Now, I’ve got a pair of Advanced Readers’ Copies to make the book seem even more real — I can lift it up and flip through its pages and begin to worry about reviews! 
mostly, I’m thrilled that this story — and the stories of the many people I met in Israel and the West Bank — will finally get shared with curious readers.

So what do you think?

Bernie’s kibbutz revealed!

Reporters at Ha’aretz dipped into the newspaper archives and discovered the smoking-gun to the “Where did Bernie volunteer?” mystery: in an interview with reporter Yossi Melman from 1990, the Bernie Sanders said he spent several months in 1963 on Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’ amakim in Western Galilee. Media are already sweeping the kibbutz, near Haifa, to learn more, although few people seem to have any memory of the young American who worked there before the big post-1967 wave of volunteers.

Anybody want to translate the original Ha’aretz story? Or more importantly, tell us if Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’ amakim has privatized since America’s Best Known Socialist once worked there?

And we’ve got a winner!

… or at least a winning sub-title for my book. Technically, I think it was my editor who helped slash through the kudzu of potential taglines and help me arrive at the words that will appear under Love & Rockets. Drum roll, please!

Chasing Utopia in a Divided Israel

I think “Chasing” works better than the “Stumbling Towards” (too cute, too unclear) and conveys the sense that utopia — that dream of a better society — is always something we are in search of, the greener grass on the other side, the mirage on the horizon. It also (I hope!) suggests that the book is both about the kibbutz movement’s search for utopia and my own quest to discover what became of that dream, 100 years after the first pioneers created Degania.

So, the Chase is on. Next up: going through the editor’s notes. ANother thorough fact-check. And hopefully some cover options to mull over.

Helen Mirren, kibbutz volunteer

British acting legend Helen Mirren was recently honoured in Los Angeles at the Israel Film Festival and spoke about her experiences in the country—including a stint as a volunteer on Kibbutz Ha’on six months after the Six Day War, when the first wave of foreign visitors arrived to kibbutzes across Israel to fill in for members called up for Army service to defend the country. She recalls sleeping on the beach in Eilat—a pleasure that I shared, too, although two decades later.

“That visit to Israel was one of the important building blocks, in my life,” she told the audience. “The courage and the commitment of those early people working on the kibbutz that I was luck enough to meet briefly. These building blocks that make personal lives and that make countries.”

Kibbutz Ha’on, however, is no longer a kibbutz. In 2007, the indebted community returned its land to the state and became a semi-cooperative moshav instead.

Insert [Sub-Title] Here

The good—no, great—news: my book has a publisher and a publication date. I’m thrilled to announced that ECW Press has acquired the world rights to my kibbutz book with a publication date of Fall 2016.

The manuscript is with an editor and I am working with the publisher and production staff to hash out the cover design and final title-sub-title combo… 

… which is the bad-ish news: I’m stumped.

I’ll be the first to admit that writing display copy was never my forte as a magazine editor. I was okay at it (“Land of the Lox” for a feature about indigenous fish-farming in BC!), but I also worked with other editors who were masters at the catchy title/subtitle combo. It’s not easy.

My kibbutz book has proven that conundrum. It has evolved through several title variations:

  1. The Shouting Fence: That was the title of a poem I wrote, as a 21-year-old writing student, in the voice of a Druze man. It was briefly the working title of the manuscript and remains as a chapter title about my visit to Majdal Shams. It’s catchy and dramatic—but misleading. It evokes the divisions in Israel but nothing of the utopian enterprise of the kibbutz. Nixed.
  2. Look Back to Galilee: The name of this blog was the working title of this project for years. It comes form a phrase used by one of the founders of Kvutsa Degania, who urged his compatriots to return to the Kinnereth—and the Galilee—to found their commune. But as one kibbutz researcher in Haifa told me on a visit in 2009: “It sounds kind of Christian.” And while it evokes a sense of memoir, it isn’t especially catchy either.
  3. Who Killed the Kibbutz? emerged late in the process as a front-runner when a grad student read a draft and suggested the manuscript needed more narrative drive and tension. What was the throughline? For a while, I thought it was the search for who or what had led to the decline of Israel’s utopian communities. (I’m still kind of fond of this title.)
  4. Love & Rockets: And then a bolt from the blue. I can’t even remember how I came up with this title—perhaps mining all my memories from the late 80s reminded me of the band of the same name (and it’s cover version of “Ball of Confusion”—which seems apropos to the book’s themes). It echoes Erna Paris’s The Garden and the Gun, a wonderful travelogue about Israel that heavily influenced my own decision to write his book. It’s the title under which I finally sold the project—so I think it stays. (Famous last words…)
But I still need a sub-title. Why? Because nonfiction books have sub-titles! And as Jack David, ECW’s publisher, explained to me: book buying (and promotion) is less about browsing physical store shelves these days and more about discovering a book online via key word searches. And a sub-title is the best place for such key words. Utopia was always a key theme and therefore a key word in all my proposed sub-titles

I just reviewed my progression of titles and subtitles and found the following:
  • The Shouting Fence: Slouching Toward Utopia in a Divided Land (2009)
  • Look Back to Galilee: Stumbling Toward Utopia in a Divided Land (2011)
  • Who Killed the Kibbutz: Searching for Hope in a Divided Israel (2014)
  • Love & Rockets: Stumbling Toward Utopia in a Divided Israel (2015)
But the sub-title isn’t quite there—and could use the word “kibbutz” somewhere in its syntax. Another writer also tsk-tsk’ed the use of a gerund in the sub-title, too. So I’ve been on a brainstormy voyage to come up with the perfect partner for Love & Rockets. Here’s a list of ideas (some okay, others simply awful) that have poured out of my imagination:
  • The Broken Dream of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • The Broken Promise of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • The Promise of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • The Problem of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Stumbling Towards Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • Slouching Towards Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • Looking for Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • The Long Road to Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz  
  • Cast Out of the Garden of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Cast Out of Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Leaving Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz
  • Losing Utopia in Israel and the Kibbutz

The “and” between “Israel” and “kibbutz”might be confusing, though, even though the book is about the utopian impulse in the kibbutz movement (which helped to found Israel) and in Israel in general (both inspired by and a reaction to the kibbutz). I previewed some options at our Grad @ Home party last Friday and got warm response to the “lost dream” theme in some of the sub-titles, so a few more variations….
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in Israel’s Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in the Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia of the Kibbutz
  • The Kibbutz’s Lost Dream of Utopia
  • The Kibbutz’s Lost Dream of Utopia in a Divided Israel
  • The Kibbutz’s Lost Dream of Utopia for a Divided Israel
  • The Kibbutz and the Lost Dream of Utopia in a Divided Israel
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in the Legendary Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia on the Legendary Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia on Israel’s Legendary Kibbutz
  • The Lost Dream of Utopia in Israel’s Legendary Kibbutz
  • Israel, the Kibbutz, and the Lost Dream of Utopia
  • Who Killed the Kibbutz and its Dream of Utopia?

…at which point I just want to slam down my laptop and run screaming from the room. Nothing yet feels quite right.

Any suggestions? Any favourites? Anything that can save me from the madness of subtitle writing?

Update: I’ll offer a reward—and give a copy of the book when it comes out to anyone who can dream up the perfect sub-title!

Crowdsourcing the Quest for Bernie’s Kibbutz

The search for Bernie Sanders’ former kibbutz has apparently heated up in Israel. Ha’aretz reported that the Kibbutz Movement has taken to social media (Facebook to be exact) to generate leads on where the current Democratic presidential candidate might have volunteered in the 1960s. Non-Hebrew speakers can click on Google translate to get some comic suggestions. The crowd might not always have wisdom, but it always has fun.

Alas, my own lead came up dry. An elderly kibbutz researcher I know from Kibbutz Mefalsim  (which has many South Americans) recalled an American volunteer on his home kibbutz named “Bernard” (which Sanders went by as a young man). A search through the Mefalsim archives turned up no evidence of Bernie, however.

Still, I want to stake my claim to the Sanders’ Search Reward right now by saying I’m 99% he stayed on Kibbutz Mefalsim!

Of course, the bigger question remains: Why won’t Bernie ‘fess up to the kibbutz where we briefly stayed? What went on there that he wants to hide? Yes, it was the 1960s. We don’t need to stretch our imaginations. Perhaps it was in Israel that he learned to play the bongoes like this…

Bernie Sanders’ kibbutz (an update)

As soon as I shared my last blog post on Facebook, a writer friend who had also lived on a kibbutz pointed out a glaring flaw in my Venn diagramming. The clues from Bernie Sanders’ brother and his professor friend can, in fact, all be true: Sanders’ kibbutz wasn’t necessarily founded by Argentinian immigrants; it just needs a significant enough influx of South Americans before 1964 to have made an impression on the young volunteer from Brooklyn.

So a revised Venn Diagram does have the potential for an intersecting middle: We should be looking for a kibbutz (likely in Western Galilee) founded between 1910 and, let’s say, 1936 that also accepted large numbers of Argentinean Jews—probably in the wake of World War Two or the founding of the state. 

Any suggestions?

So far, going through the list of kibbutzim on Wikipedia, I haven’t found anything that fits that bill. Few of the listings enumerate where immigrants came from after the founding garin or group.

I did start a list of kibbutzim founded by Argentinean or South American groups before 1964:

  • Mefalsim (1949)
  • Ga’ash (1951)
  • Metzer (1953)
  • Bahan (1954)

  • Nothing that could be confused as one of the oldest kibbutzim in Israel….

    On which kibbutz did Israel feel the Bern?

    Okay, I’ll admit I haven’t paid much attention to the looooong silly season of U.S. presidential nominations south of the border, beyond the Donald Trump memes floating across the Internet. I’ve been more engrossed by our own national elections here in Canada, especially the prospect of pro-Israel left-wing leader Tom Mulcair forming our country’s first NDP federal government.

    However, I couldn’t ignore the growing momentum of the David vs. Goliath campaign of Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and lone U.S. socialist (as he’s often billed), and the whole #FeelTheBern viral campaign to wrest the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton. What intrigues me most, of course, in the many profiles of Sanders—including articles and bios that pre-date his presidential bid—are the casual mentions that the progressive Jewish politician volunteered on a kibbutz in Israel back in 1964. But the articles never, ever name the kibbutz.

    Only Sanders knows which kibbutz taught him socialism can work

    I was intrigued. So were others. The Hunt for Red Bernie’s Mystery Kibbutz was soon on. And yet so far, no luck. We’ve all struck out. Bernie Sanders and his press folks have declined to answer inquiries about which kibbutz he stayed on, perhaps because Sanders has already suffered from ridiculous accusations that he is a dual Israeli-American citizen.

    So let’s piece together the clues so far  to which of Israel’s 270 or so kibbutzim Sanders might have worked.

    Jas Chana‘s “Straight Outta Brooklyn” for Tablet Magazine is an excellent primer to the life and times of Bernie Sanders. Chana outlines how, after graduating with a poli sci degree from University of Chicago and working for the Head Start program in New York City, Sanders and his brother Larry decided to travel to Israel for a bit of adventure. Here are key details from Chana’s story

    Both brothers decided to spend their time in Israel living and working on kibbutzim. Bernie arrived in Israel first and was there for six months total; Larry showed up four months after Bernie’s arrival and didn’t leave until 1967. In that time, Larry met his first wife and lived on two kibbutzim: Matsuva in the north and Yotvata in the south. Unfortunately, no one I spoke to for the purpose of this article had any idea or recollection of the name of Bernie’s kibbutz. However, Professor Richard Sugarman, a religious-studies professor at the University of Vermont, one of Sanders’ closest friends, and the man who encouraged him to run for mayor of Burlington in 1980, told me it was one of the “oldest kibbutzim.” 

    Chana’s interviews with both Professor Sugarman and Larry Sanders give the profile the most detail in any story I’ve read about how the kibbutz experience might have shaped (or at least confirmed) Bernie Sanders’ beliefs in mutual aid and social justice. During his stay, Sanders was apparently curious about kibbutzniks economic plans, how socialism could work, how communal life gave parents more free time, and even just watching fellow Jews as farmers…. he had grown up in Brooklyn, after all. Sanders felt the kibbutz was “a utopian form of existence” (according to Sugarman) and proved that socialism could be put into practice (according to his brother).

    But on which kibbutz—and from which federation—did he learn these lessons?

    Naomi Zeveloff traipsed through Israel to find out—and the title of her article for Forward makes clear her lack of success. “The name of Sanders’s kibbutz might seem like a minor detail, but it’s important,” she writes. “Among other things, it could build on our understanding of his formative years.”

    Her interview with Sanders’ brother gives a teasing clue, when Larry tells her that he thought Bernie had stayed on “a kibbutz near the Mediterranean where there were a large number of Argentine volunteers in the 1960s.” Through various sources, she zeroes in on three kibbutzim: Zikim and Sa’ad (near Gaza), and Ga’ash in central Israel. She spoke to several kibbutz representatives I’d also met during my travels (Dudu Amitai at Givat Haviva and former MK Avshalom Vilan). Unfortunately, because Sanders arrived in 1964, before the big influx of volunteers that followed the Six Day War of 1967 and the subsequent bureaucracy to track these new arrivals—Zeveloff could find no record of Bernie’s visit. She also had no luck contacting members at the three kibbutzim she identified. A dead end. So she has  out a call for clues—both in Israel and through The Forward.

    In Israel, Ha’aretz  put its own reporter on the case, but the title of Judy Maltz’s article also reveals her frustrated quest: “Mission Impossible? Finding Bernie Sanders’ Kibbutz”. She wondered, as she set off, if she could track down an old-timer from the kibbutz where Sanders stayed who “might recall his hot romance with the gorgeous young kibbutznik who refused to return to the United States with him”. (Shades of Not Quite Paradise….

    She hits all the right offices: the Kibbutz Movement, the archives of Yad Tabenkin and Yad Ya’ari. Nothing. Emails and messages to Sanders and his media advisers come up empty, too. Even Professor Huck Gutman, a longtime friend and co-author of Sanders’ political memoir, doesn’t know. “The only person I know who knew Bernie then was Larry,” he replies.

    So Maltz spoke with Bernie’s brother, too, and he repeated the somewhat vague clue he gave Zeveloff: 

    “I am pretty sure it wasn’t the Negev. It had a number of South American members. I remember Bernard being impressed by one of the kibbutznik’s explanation of how they would transform Argentina. Without any reason to believe I am right, I would guess near the Mediterranean coast.”

    So Maltz rounded up a dozen kibbutzim that fit these clues and emailed their names to Larry. But no bells ring, although Bernie’s UK-based brother also admits: “I don’t the name is stuck anywhere in my brain.” Dead end.

    So, let’s examine the sparse clues and see if we can “profile” the potential locations for Berne Sanders’ formative socialist—and Zionist— experiences:

    • Not the Negev
    • Near the Mediterranean Coast
    • members from Argentina
    • one of the oldest kibbutzim
    Another potential clue: Larry Sanders’ stay in Israel overlapped with his brother’s by two months but it sounds like they never actually spent time together in Israel—or visited each other’s kibbutzes.

    Larry stayed on Matsuva near the Lebanese border (and the Mediterranean) and Yotvata just north of the Red Sea, so I’m tempted to rule out any kibbutzes in close proximity to either of these regions, as I think Larry would remember if his brother had stayed on a kibbutz near his own.

    Using Larry Sanders’ others clues, we can triangulate a few possibilities, as Zeveloff did, of Argentinean kibbutzes near the coast… although I’m surprised that Mefalsim didn’t make her cut. It was founded in 1949 by Argentinian immigrants, not far from the coast… or from the Gaza Strip. That would make a curious coincidence, as Mefalsim is also just minutes north on Highway 232 from Kibbutz Be’eri, where Michele Bachmann—the other presidential candidate to do time on a kibbutz—volunteered in 1974. Mefalsim is technically in the northern Negev, so perhaps it should be disqualified for that reason—although it’s further north than Sa’ad, which did make Zekeloff’s short list. Still, I’ve got a note to a contact there to see if I can find out more.

    The bigger problem?

    Larry Sanders’ clues (Argentinean kibbutz near coast and not Negev) don’t square with the single mysterious detail from Professor Sugarman (one of the oldest kibbutzes). The kibbutz movement began in 1909, with Degania. By 1939, there were 73 kibbutzim, most of them concentrated away from the Mediterranean in the Jezreel Valley, the Hula Valley, the Beit Shean Valley or around Lake Kinnereth (aka the Sea of Galilee). More problematic: I don’t know any kibbutzim founded by South Americans before the Second World War; most were started with the immigration from South America after Israel’s independence in 1949.

    Here’s the rub: If we assume both Larry Sanders’ clues to be true and Professor Sugarman’s hint, too, we end up (as far as I can tell) with a Venn Diagram with no overlapping middle. So who’s right and who’s wrong?

    Argentinean kibbutzes by the sea / oldest kibbutzim

    Larry Sanders admits his memory is fuzzy, but the detail about Argentinian kibbutzniks seems so precise, he can’t have fudged that. The two kibbutzes Larry lived on were founded by Germans and young native-born Israelis, so he hasn’t transposed his own kibbutz kibbutz experiences for Bernie’s.

    And yet Professor Sanders is an acclaimed Yale-trained scholar of Jewish philosophy—i.e., not one to casually toss off half-remembered “facts” about an old friend’s time in Israel. 

    Dead end. Or at least a puzzling crossroads.

    And so the quest to find Bernie Sanders’ kibbutz only grows more mysterious. 

    Dear fellow questers: Shall we put a wager on it? The first to find where American socialism’s last great hope once learned the ropes of communal life gets an extra week off from dining-room duty…

    Ready, set, go!